Best of Flagstaff 2022
Written by Gail G. Collins
A satisfying success in this life is to come full circle. Where one’s achievements align with the passions we set out to pursue, and while it takes a steady head, hard work and perseverance, it just might be our attitude—humble and grateful—that allows one to recognize and embrace that success.
In the beginning, any small business boasts one fired-up, know-it-all employee. Heck, he has invested heart, soul and bank account. It wasn’t any different for John Conley, owner of Salsa Brava and Fat Olives Wood Fired Pizzeria and Italian Kitchen.
Conley began cooking at 13 and has continued ever since. Coming from a large family, cooking kept him fed in more ways than one, and the loud chaos of a kitchen felt natural. After high school, Conley became a Heber Hotshot for the US Forest Service and attended NAU’s hotel and restaurant management program. Equipped with a penchant for Mexican travel and culture, a job at the original Salsa Brava was also a good fit. Then, rushing headlong, on the cusp of finishing his degree, Conley used his savings to buy Salsa Brava at age 21.
He shut down the place for three months and transformed it from counter service to a full restaurant, opening with one employee—John. “I had $200 to my name and slept in the shop,” Conley remembers. But that first week, firefighters battling a blaze needed 500 lunches each day for nearly a week—he was making money.
The new menu at Salsa Brava was unfamiliar, except in Sonora, known for its seafood, beef and produce. Shrimp and lobster enchiladas, Baja tacos and more, showcased flavors from the grill—al carbon—plus a range of salsa options. Thirty-five years later, that aim remains.
A lot of details have shaken out in the meantime, but the food is unshakable. The salsa requires 1,000 pounds of hand-cut tomatoes weekly, and with inflation and a hurricane, the price of a 20-pound case of fruit has skyrocketed six-fold. Also, COVID brought healthy changes to the salsa bar, where an enormous amount became wasted daily. Still, chips and salsa are free at Salsa Brava, and they come with a trio of scratch salsas.
“We spend four hours a day making salsa,” says Conley. “It’s the most expensive thing in our restaurant.” Best Salsa—an award well-earned.
Voted Best Tacos also, Salsa Brava’s choices range from Maui pork, carne asada, smoked chicken and carnitas to shrimp, cochinita pibil (Yucatan BBQ pork) and adovada pork, and the menu includes combination and traditional plates, enchiladas and fajitas.Continue reading “John Conley comes full circle as Salsa Brava and Fat Olives sweep up six awards in Food & Drink“